Monday, November 15, 2010
Training is over! The whole process has not been easy, beginning from day 1 when I began the application process over 1½ years ago. Throughout the whole process I kept wondering if the hurdles would ever end, and after each hurdle cleared, I thought for sure that that was the last. Nope. I was wrong so many times. The Peace Corps is good at coming up with so much crap to put you through. But I guess it’s good and all for a reason. So, here I am at last… no longer am I an applicant, or a nominee, or a trainee. I am officially a Peace Corps Volunteer! And I have a Peace Corps picture ID to prove it!
I’ve been “on the job” for four weeks now and my official job title is Small Business Advisor. My responsibilities include working with the school, as well as, existing/potential entrepreneurs within my community. At the school, I am charged with providing technical support to the entrepreneurship teacher, in addition to, assisting her in developing new teaching methodologies to make the entrepreneurship curriculum a lot less theoretical and more practical and hands-on. These entrepreneurship classes (for grades 8, 9, 10) are completely new to the school curriculum and were added almost 2 years ago mainly because of the high rate of Grade 10 dropouts. The thought process here was to at least try to equip the learners with some business skills so that if - or when - they drop out, they have some knowledge/skills to potentially start their own business and take part in the country’s economic development.
In the community, I am charged with providing training to community members in areas of marketing, accounting, financial/business planning, feasibility/market studies, etc. I am also supposed to help community members understand the resources available to them as small business owners and assist them with creating income-generating activities to promote economic development. So, my responsibilities seem easy and straightforward, right?? HA! I wish!
The problem is my community is the bush and I live deep in it. Definition of bush: a particular area of land (lots and lots of land) scattered with small trees and bushes (lots and lots of small trees and bushes). Most people who live in the bush rarely leave the bush because for one, they simply don’t have the means to leave, and two, there’s really no need to, since they live off the land. They cultivate and harvest their own food - mostly mahangu (aka millet) - and that’s essentially what they eat to survive. I have discovered a couple of businesses in the bush, but they’re shabeens (aka bars), and that’s not exactly the type of business I’d like to incorporate into class assignments. Also, the nearest town is about 30 km away and I’ve been told that trying to arrange transportation with the Education Ministry to go anywhere for a school field trip is next to impossible, not to mention the school has no resources, and I could already see that it’s difficult for the learners to grasp many concepts as they are unable to put things into context because they’ve been trapped in the bush and not exposed to much of anything. So, how can I possibly develop practical/hands-on learning activities when the circumstances are as such?? I’m sure it can be done. It just won’t be so easy and straightforward.
I’m also very confused about my responsibility of working within the community. When I step out of my homestead all I can see is land and bush, in every direction. When I make the 2 km trek to and from school all I can see is land and bush, in every direction. I’m not really sure where this community is that I’m supposed to be working with. What’s amazing though, every day approximately 400 learners show up at school. So I guess there is in fact a community – somewhere out there. I just have to find it.
The first two weeks on the job were actually pretty demoralizing, and I experienced culture shock all over again. The fact that the school has no resources is a challenge in itself, but what’s worse, the learners have no self-esteem, confidence, or critical thinking skills, whatsoever. Sadly, most of teachers are the same way. But you can’t blame the learners or the teachers. Unfortunately, this is one of the devastating and lasting effects of colonialism and apartheid. Namibia was colonized twice, first by Germany, then by South Africa. The country only gained its independence 20 years ago, and prior to independence, black people were not allowed to think. If you ask the learners a question that requires them to think or to share their opinion, they immediately open their textbooks and flip through the pages looking for something to copy down. Plagiarism is huge problem here in the schools. I also looked at assignments turned in by the 10th graders (ages 16 – 22), and thought I was looking at work done by 4th graders. It’s shocking. Majority of the learners don’t even have an inkling of confidence or self-esteem to stand up in front of the class and speak. Some of them looked as though they wanted to die. I thought others were going to pee in their pants. There were some learners that would go to the front of the classroom but they couldn’t muster up the courage to turn their bodies to face the class, so with their backs to the class, they clung to the chalkboard, as if they could magically crawl into the chalkboard and make themselves disappear. Honestly, it was almost unbearable for me to see all of this. Also, even still today, kids in Namibia are disrespected and treated as if they don’t have any rights. They are called stupid – all the time, they are ridiculed in front of the class, and they are beaten for making mistakes. It’s also common to see children eating only after the adults have eaten, and typically, the meat is only for the adults. In some classrooms you will find posters about corporal punishment and learners’ rights. Even in a popular children’s magazine I read several articles talking about the rights of children and how children and adults should have mutual respect, no matter the environment or situation. These posters and articles constantly remind me of the little girl in my old Okahandja neighborhood who said to me, “We call white teachers heroes. They are kind to us.” Anyway, it seems that the country and the school ministry recognize this as an issue but it’s difficult to overcome a long history of thinking a certain way. It will take generations before they even come close.
So after the first 3 weeks I was already beginning to feel hopeless and could feel myself falling into a funk. But things changed a little last week. Three learners surprised me, completely out of nowhere, and it is them who inspired me to sit down and type this blog entry. So, to all of you who have been bugging me about updating my blog, you have these learners to thank. ;-) Their names are Sonia, Maria and Jafet. Sonia is a 3rd grader and last Tuesday she decided that she wanted to wear high heels to school, just like a couple of the teachers. So she took two 3-inch hammering nails and stuck one through each sole of her sandal and she pranced around proudly on the cement floors, making the clacking noise just like the teachers whom she looked up to. It was so darn funny! :-) Maybe this seems insignificant, but that moment restored some of the hope I had lost because what Sonia did required a thought process and creativity – two things that I was starting to believe did not exist among the learners. Granted, it wasn’t executed perfectly, but man, it was beautiful and so funny! Haha!
Then there’s Maria. She’s a 9th grader with a rebellious streak, I could tell. Last week I spent a lot of time with the English class that Maria is in because the teacher was out all week. (On a side note - there is no such thing as substitute teachers in Namibia. If a teacher does not come to school, then the classes remain unattended and the children do nothing). Anyway, I am determined to find this community of mine, so I implored the 9th grade English class to help me. I brought markers with me from Chicago and the Peace Corps gave me a pad of big flipchart paper, so with these supplies I had the class work in groups to draw a map of the community. All the learners seemed excited about this assignment except little Miss Maria. She wanted absolutely nothing to do with it. On the first day of the assignment she just sat there and barely even participated with her group. The next day she came to class with a short novel and sat completely engrossed in reading her book while the rest of her group continued with the map assignment. I just watched her. I couldn’t get mad at her or reprimand her… she was reading for crying out loud! I asked her if she liked to read and she said ‘yes’. I told her that that was great and that I was happy to see her reading. She smiled and then that was it. I left her alone and she read for the rest of the class period while the other learners finished their community maps. So the next time I escape the bush and go to a civilized town with a bookstore I’m going to buy her a couple of books and a dictionary. Maybe she’ll find a way out of the bush through reading.
Finally, there’s Jafet, whom I actually live with. He is my host-brother. Jafet is a 4th grader and a very cool kid. So every Friday morning we have a 20-minute assembly, which includes morning greetings, a prayer, a culture dance and/or song, and announcements. Last Friday’s assembly was lead by Jafet and he did such an awesome job! His English was impeccable and he spoke very loudly and clearly and showed tremendous confidence in front of the whole school. I was so proud of him. Then, Jafet and 5 other learners sang It’s a Small World, and of course, Jafet stood tall in front of the whole school and sang the loudest. Him and I had been practicing the song all week at home, so he was really good. ;-) His presence really commanded the attention of the whole school. It was so great…. a 4th grader! He did a WAY better job than the older kids the week before! Even all the teachers were impressed and a few of them said to me, “Ms. Jennifer, Jafet is really learning English from you at home!” Haha! He is such a good kid.
Anyhow, so Sonia, Maria and Jafet helped lift me from the funk I was falling into. I’ve figured out one thing so far, and that is, the next two years will demand lots of patience and require strategies; and any accomplishments will likely come in small feats.
Back to the community map – I am STILL very confused about my community. There were six groups drawing a community map and at the end of the assignment each group presented their map to the class. What’s interesting, no two maps were even remotely similar! HA! I think I’m going to walk (or ‘foot’ as the Namibians like to call it) the entire bush and hope that I don’t end up kidnapped in Angola! This community must be found, darn it! I will say, though, some of these learners are very talented. I was actually impressed with many of their drawings. They don’t know it yet, but I have some school projects in mind that will allow them to explore their artistic talent. I can’t wait!
One thing that I’m constantly battling with, besides spiders, cockroaches, and other ugly looking bugs, is unwanted attention. Most people stare at me blatantly, with their mouths wide open. It’s as if they’ve never seen a white person before. I guess it’s possible that they haven’t. When I’m out and about walking some people stop dead in their tracks and turn their heads toward me. Others continue walking in the direction they’re going but they also turn their heads to follow me until their heads can’t be turned any more. The best is when I bust out with at little of the local language. People nearly fall to the ground when they hear me speak Oshindonga. It’s quite funny. Some of comments I receive are shocking and funny all at the same time. The most common is, “Madame, take me to America with you.” My favorite exchange was with a Namibian man, and it went like this:
Him: Hello Madame
Me: Hello, how are you?
Him: I am fine. Are you married?
Him: Do you have a boyfriend?
Him: Do you have children?
Him: I want to give you children?
Him: Can I give you children?
Hahaha! Sometimes it’s all a bit too much. But I’ve learned my lesson. The next time someone asks me if I’m married, my answer will be “Yes, with 6 children.” Both, men and women, in Namibia can’t understand why I don’t have any children. I always get really strange looks, as if I’m from a different planet. But then again, sometimes I think Namibia can’t possibly belong to planet Earth! During my training I spoke to a man named Simon who was telling me about his business idea to start an ambulance service. He handed me a copy of his business plan and the name of the business written on the front page was 7 Stars Ambulance Service. Out of curiosity, I asked him why 7 stars. This is what he said to me: “at the time I wrote this I had 7 children, but this year I had 2 more children, so now it’s 9 Stars Ambulance Service.” Hahaha. Geez Louise!
So, my homestead life in the north is starting to feel normal. The monotonous food of sandy porridge and over-cooked, starchy macaroni is becoming more appetizing. I also get a thrill out of killing spiders, scorpions and cockroaches. I once read an article that said humans swallow, on average, 7 spiders during their lifetime. With the number of spiders I’m seeing, that number surely has to be much higher for Namibians. I kill at least one spider each day, and there’s more that scurry away from my failed attempts. It’s also now becoming a natural habit for me to duck before I step out of the pit latrine (aka outhouse). The first few times in the dark I hit my head because the doorway is made for a person who is 4 feet tall. I was happy the red mark on my forehead always went away by morning! Washing clothes by hand doesn’t seem so laborious either, probably because I’m doing a terrible job. Actually, I know it’s because I’m doing a terrible job. Also, I’m making do just fine without electricity. In fact, I am so thankful for not having electricity because dinner’s mystery meat goes down better if I don’t see it.
Clotheslines in Namibia are not just for hanging clothes but for hanging meat, as well. We don’t have refrigeration so we preserve meat by salting it and then drying it out in the sun. So the meat shrivels up and becomes very hard. It’s as if you’re eating a beef jerky. Sometimes I think I’ve been chewing on the same piece of meat for 5 minutes. I’ve never known eating to be such hard work, even eating chicken! The domestic chicken is a tougher meat, too. But maybe that’s the way chicken is supposed to taste before all the steroids and chemicals are pumped into it.
My permanent family in the north is pretty amazing and I’m convinced that I’m living with the best family in all of Namibia. Everyone makes me feel as though I’m a family member, not a guest. There’s Meme, Tate, 6 children, a house worker, the house worker’s 1-year-old son, and me. And if you count all the chickens, it’s a full house! :-) Meme is a lower primary grade teacher and Tate is a businessman but also a retired employee from the water utility company. Their eldest child is Tomas. He’s 21, very funny and very handsome. Then there’s Wilhelmina, who is 20. She’s living in Windhoek and studying Tourism at the University of Namibia. I haven’t met her yet, but will get the chance in December during the holidays. Next is Tobias, who is 19. He’s very soft-spoken and shy. He just finished Grade 12 and is waiting to see if his examination marks are high enough to get him into the university. Then there’s Liana. She’s a very normal 16-year-old girl. She has a very private side to her, too. There’s been many times I’ve noticed her deep in thought, completely tuned out to her surroundings. She has a boyfriend but her parents don’t know about him because dating is not culturally accepted in Namibia. Being friends with a person of the opposite sex isn’t even culturally accepted. Liana also doesn’t seem too keen about the gender roles her society expects of her. Gender inequalities are a huge issue in Namibia, but I think Liana knows better than to just give in. She really wants out and her dream is to study in the U.S. Next are Filipus and Jafet, 11 and 10-years-old. They’re a tag-team. I know I’ll be okay in Namibia as long as Filipus and Jafet are around. They’re always making sure I’m eating enough and that my nalgene bottle is filled with water, and at the end of every day they always tell me to sleep well. They’re such cute kids! Filipus is a very curious kid, always asking me ‘why’ and wanting to know how everything works. He also has to touch everything and examine things for himself, which is good. I’m expecting big things from Filipus when he gets older. Filipus can also be a little troublemaker at times, as he is always looking to push the boundaries. Jafet, on the other hand, is very different from his brother. Jafet is more of the quiet observer. It’s also important to Jafet that he gets to school early every day. It’s so funny how he rushes out the gate, and for no reason at all! When I say early, I mean close to an hour early! Jafet is a really good kid, though. I’m sure he’ll grow up to be the perfect gentleman. In short, Jafet chooses to obey the rules while Filipus would rather break them. Mamushka is the house worker. She’s 23-years-old and the nicest person you will ever meet. She’s always happy and you will never find her not smiling. Her 1-year-old son, Hishikushitya, is usually walking around the homestead with his bare butt exposed because babies in the bush don’t wear diapers. After he goes number two, Mamushka comes with a shovel, scoops up the poop from our dirt/sand floor and then, flings the poop out of the homestead over the tall, thick trees branches, which are erected as our walls. Some things are just too funny and I find myself laughing hysterically on the inside. I can’t wait to find out what potty training is like with a pit latrine in the bush. I’m sure it’ll be interesting… things always are! Also, unlike in the U.S., breastfeeding is not something women here do privately. It is all out in the open, boobs and all. We could be playing cards or eating dinner and there you will find Mamushka, topless and breastfeeding Hishi. I’ve also found myself squeezed into taxis with women who are breastfeeding, both breasts hanging out. But whether a woman is breastfeeding or not, she is usually walking around half-naked. This is something else I’m also becoming accustomed to – i.e. seeing half-naked women, not becoming one myself! This is one aspect of the culture I have not adapted to and don’t plan on adapting to! :-)
Contrary to what you may think, rural life in the bush is far from being boring. UNO, dominos and regular card games are great for passing the time. We also jam to iTunes on my computer. Even Hishi gets into it and shakes his little naked butt. Monopoly is the next joy I plan on introducing my family to, once I can make it back to Windhoek where I can buy it. The games and music are fun, and I’m definitely glad I brought them with, but the real entertainment comes in the form of goat stampedes and cobra killings, not to mention the random events and sightings I find myself being a spectator to during my visits into town.
Some words of advice: if by chance you find yourself living in the bush and owning 27 goats, be sure to close the gate (aka front door) of your homestead while your goats are out grazing. Otherwise, you will have your home raided by 27 goats and they will eat all the plants in sight! This is what happened to us, but the goats weren’t in the house very long before Jafet and Filipus chased them out. I was standing back watching these events unfold, and before I knew it, everything around me turned into very loud mayhem. Jafet and Filipus were chasing the goats, screaming at them; the goats were bah-ing very loudly and quickly rushing towards to the gate, while the chickens were running in every direction looking for a safe haven and making all the chicken noises that chickens make. The chaos culminated into a goat stampede with one chicken dead. It was crazy!
But it gets crazier! The other day I came home from school and my tate told me about the 4-foot black and white cobra that he and Tomas found in one of the storage huts in our house. I asked Tate what he did with it and he said they burned it. I didn’t think anything of it until it was time for dinner and saw a new type of meat on the table. This new meat wasn’t hard and dried out either. And as Filipus kept saying “this is nice meat” over and over again, I couldn’t help but wonder what “burned it” really met. I was too afraid to ask if I was eating snake. The meat tasted ok, I guess, but it was definitely different. I only had a few bites and gave the rest to Filipus because the thought of snake just didn’t sit well with me. I can do caterpillars but I’m not ready for snake just yet. Here, in the backwards north, people also eat dog. So far, I know I haven’t eaten dog meat, at least I don’t think so. When I come home from school everyday, I’m always so happy to be greeted by all three dogs. I hope one doesn’t go missing one day.
One of the many things I find strange about Namibia is that goats, cows, and donkeys have the right-of-way on the roads, yet pedestrians receive no mercy, whatsoever. It’s very strange. Even when you leave the bush and go into town there are animals roaming freely, and cars must slow down or stop because these animals just hang-out in the middle of the road. I often wonder who is the owner of these animals and if they know their animals are parading around town causing traffic jams. Also, most people who are considered wealthy in Namibia keep their wealth in livestock, so when I see roaming animals in town, I think to myself, ‘shouldn’t the owners of these animals know where their money is, and wouldn’t they want their money to be in a safe place?’ Anyhow, forget about making a quick trip into town because you will have animals to contend with, not the kind of animals you and I are accustomed to dealing with on the road, but that kind that walk on all four. ;-) Plus, when you get to town you may find that the stores are closed due to the town’s electricity being turned off because the municipality owes NamPower (Namibia’s electric company) N$12 million. I was thoroughly confused when this happened, but then again, there’s a lot I don’t really understand. Often times, I just shake my head and ask myself ‘why’. I usually fail at coming up with a plausible answer but I continue on with the ride anyway. It’s always an adventure!
There’s another thing I don’t quite understand: my family has a house in town, yet they prefer to live in the bush. It is a normal, western-style home with running water, electricity and a flush toilet. I don’t get it. Liana and Tobias use the house during the week when school is in session because if not, the commute in and out of the bush would be too costly. But at the end of the day, the whole family, with the exception of Liana, would rather live in the bush. Maybe there’s something to be said for living in the bush. I don’t know what that something is, but I have two years to find out.